Our Voices

Student Voices Engaged for Equity

While the longstanding impacts of racism permeate our society, discussions of race are largely absent from much of the public school curriculum and have become contentious in today’s educational environment. It’s left many educators searching for strategies to start constructive and open dialogue about race in the classroom. On March 10, we hosted a panel with Guadalupe Cardona, an Ethnic Studies teacher and lead educator at Roybal Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles; Dr. Ndindi Kitonga, co-founder of Angeles Workshop School in Los Angeles; Dr. Kern Jackson, director of the African American Studies program at University of South Alabama and co-writer/co-producer of Descendant; and three students at the Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language (MAAL) to learn more about how educators and students can constructively address race in the classroom.

Cardona urged educators to “start with themselves” by learning about the experiences of others and about their own history and background. Dr. Jackson emphasized the need for self-assessment to effectively teach about race as “all pedagogy comes from your values,” and that we must first be able to “articulate our own values before we can teach students to articulate theirs.” Cardona noted “exploring these topics can be uncomfortable, but everything worth exploring is going to be uncomfortable” and that it is incumbent upon us to “set up a classroom environment that pedagogically makes (exploring that discomfort) safe to do.” In the classroom, she said, we can model the world we imagine and must teach ways to respectfully disagree.

Dr. Kitonga agreed, asserting that effective discussions about race are “not just about content and curriculum, but about . . . humanizing the classroom.” The fundamental question we need to be asking ourselves as students and educators, is “Do you want to be in full and whole relationship with your fellow human beings and struggle towards whatever that means?”

What would a classroom where diverse stories are silenced look like? What happens when students cannot see themselves in the curriculum and have no place for their voices to be heard? These are the questions that Julio Gomez, Emely Hernandez, and Sebastian Herrera – student leaders of the MAAL Equity Team and members of Lauren McCoy’s AP class – asked themselves after they learned that Florida banned the AP African American Studies course. McCoy decided to address the Florida ban in class and brainstormed with the students about what they could do. “Someone proposed making school announcements in English and Spanish about prominent queer black figures and their contributions,” she said, “ . . . (so) I had groups research Marsha P. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin. . . . After two periods of researching, finding videos or clips of their person, and making the slides, we did a gallery walk-style presentation, so they presented to each other. Then they cut it down into a shorter blurb for the announcements.” The announcements were posted around the school to spark conversation. You can view a sample of their work here.

Working on this assignment was important to the students because, according to Emely Hernandez, “talking about race and equity in the classroom helps students develop their identity and social skills” and create and strengthen a sense of community. “We need to know the history, accomplishments, and joy of community of people of color too . . . and we need to be capable of using our freedom of speech.”

As members of the Equity Team, the students shared the process they developed to ensure that classes at their school are both challenging and equitable. After they heard from many students that they wanted to be challenged more in their classes, the Equity Team decided to assess courses and offer constructive feedback to teachers and students. The teachers and students worked together to design more equitable curriculum.

“We are a school of immigrants,” Julio Gomez reminded viewers. “We know what it’s like when people on the train look at us or treat us different . . . We know that no one is free until we are all free” and, echoing the descendants of the Clotilda in Descendant, “cutting off people’s history is erasing their humanity . . . is a crime against humanity.”

Challenging and honest conversations about race and about diverse histories is part of what will inspire students to be agents of change in their own communities, according to the students at MAAL. To start or continue these conversations in your classroom, view this panel discussion in its entirety, and use the additional resources to screen and teach about the film Descendant, visit our Film Series page. If you have questions or if your students would like to share examples of their work or community action, please contact us: [email protected].